This was USA 1994 ending as it had began: with a wayward penalty.
On 17 July, exactly a month on from Diana Ross’s comical miss in the Opening Ceremony, Roberto Baggio took aim from 12 yards. He did so knowing that failure to hit the net would consign Italy to defeat and confirm Brazil as champions. Football fans everywhere will remember what happened next, and this time there was no funny side.
“It is a wound that never closes,” Baggio has since said of his notorious miss. “I had dreamt of playing in a World Cup Final since I was a little boy, but I never thought it could end like that. To this day, I still haven’t truly accepted that it happened. It haunts me.”
Losing a World Cup on penalties is cruel enough in any context, but it was doubly harsh on Baggio, without whom Italy would never have stood a chance.* Il Divin Codino* (the Divine Ponytail) had arguably been the tournament’s outstanding player prior to that fateful Final, responsible for decisive goals against Nigeria and Spain before securing Gli Azzurri’s place at the Rose Bowl with a match-winning double against Bulgaria.
But having been blunted in a tight, tense decider, Baggio – normally nerveless from 12 yards – made a fatal error in the shootout that followed the stalemate. “When I went up to the spot I was pretty lucid,” he later recalled in his autobiography, 'Una Porta Nel Cielo' (A Goal In The Sky). “I knew [Claudio Taffarel] always dived so I decided to shoot for the middle, about halfway up, so he couldn't get it with his feet. It was an intelligent decision because Taffarel did go to his left, and he would never have got to the shot I planned. Unfortunately, and I don't know how, the ball went up three metres and flew over the crossbar.”
An otherwise magnificent campaign was duly defined by this brief but costly lapse. “I felt myself dying inside,” Baggio said of the seconds that followed. “Also, I thought of the reaction my countrymen would be having."
“It affected me for years,” he added. “I still dream about it. And if I could erase a moment from my career, it would be that one.”
*Did you know?
*The USA 1994 exhibit at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich includes a ticket from that Final in Pasadena and a shirt worn by the keeper who went up against Baggio in the shootout.
— FIFA Museum (@FIFAMuseum) 21. April 2016